DATE CREATED: 12/21/08
Only certainty after Sunday is that it's time to stop doubting the Titans
Mike Celizic, NBCSports.com contributor
The AFC could have cleared up a lot on Sunday. The Broncos could have nailed down the AFC West. The Jets could have buckled themselves into the driver's seat of the East. The Steelers could have proved that all the experts who were saying the Titans aren't as good as their record says they are were right.
When the day was done, just one issue had been settled. On a cold and windy day that was quintessential Steeler weather, Pittsburgh marched onto the field against the Titans full of pride and confidence and marched off three hours later trying to figure out what hit them.
This was essentially a playoff game between the two best teams in the AFC with home field advantage through the conference playoffs at stake. And it was played that way, with two ferocious and hard-hitting defenses going after each other as if it were the last game they'd ever play.
The NFL season is 16 weeks old, and we've spent 15 of them inventing reasons why the Titans were a mirage. We thought we finally had the evidence we needed when, after 10 straight wins to start the season, they lost badly to the Jets and then, three weeks later, fell to the lowly Houston Texans. All we needed to lay their premature legend to rest was for Pittsburgh to go to Nashville and show them who the real power in the AFC was.
After Titans 13, Steelers 3, we're out of reasons to doubt the Titans. They may not be the most offensively explosive team in captivity, but defense wins in the postseason. And for four merciless quarters, Tennessee totally pummeled the Steelers and their quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger.
The Steelers, who aren't the greatest offensive machine in captivity, either, didn't help their own cause. They lost two fumbles that turned out to be devastating. One was by Big Ben as they seemed to be going in for a first-quarter touchdown that would have given them a 7-0 lead. The second was on their own 39 and led to Tennessee's only touchdown of the game and a lead that the Steelers couldn't overcome.
Roethlisberger did throw for 331 yards, but he was intercepted twice and sacked five times. Kerry Collins, meanwhile, was sacked just once by the Steelers, completed 20 of 29 passes, and was not intercepted.
Collins was supposed to be the weak link for the Titans. He's well-traveled, a man who took the Giants to the Super Bowl, but once there had a horrible day against a devastating Ravens defense. Since leaving the Giants, he's knocked around, playing the role of the veteran stop-gap that Drew Bledsoe and Vinny Testaverde used to fill nce their starting days ended. He was seen as a guy with a strong arm and bad judgment; a guy who would move a team and win games, but would throw up bad passes in the biggest games at the worst times.
That hasn't been the case this year. Collins has taken great care of the ball. He's thrown for just 12 touchdowns this year, but he's had just seven interceptions. Plus, the Titans stout offensive line has kept his sacks down to fewer than one a game.
There is no such thing as a perfect team. We learned that last year, courtesy of the Patriots. In this business, everyone can be beat. And the Titans would be vulnerable against a team that can pass the ball - and protect its quarterback.
They finish the season against the Colts, which happens to meet that description. But the season's final game would be a real playoff preview because Tennessee no longer has anything to gain by winning it. Still, it will be interesting to see what they do against Peyton Manning now that he's at the top of his game again.
The rest of the AFC isn't nearly as neatly settled as is the South. Denver could have wrapped up the West by beating Buffalo. As has been the case so often this year for the Broncos, they couldn't do it, so they get to play the Chargers with the division championship and a playoff berth on the line next Sunday.
But the real excitement is in the AFC East, where three teams - the Dolphins, Jets and Patriots, are fighting for the division title and one or more of them could be competing for the AFC's final wild card with the Ravens.
Just three weeks ago, the East was the Jets to lose. Unfortunately for Gang Green fans, that's exactly what they've proceeded to do. They lost to the Broncos and 49ers, beat the Bills and Sunday got whipped by the Seahawks in Seattle. So that's three losses in four games, and the man who was going to save the franchise, Brett Favre, has had a big hand in all of them.
He wasn't totally to blame Sunday for an awful showing against The Seahawks, who have not been accused of anything remotely resembling competence this year. But he did his share, taking four sacks and tossing up two interceptions to bring his league-leading total up to 21.
Had the Jets won, they would have been guaranteed a playoff slot by beating Miami in the season's final game. Now, they have to beat Miami and hope that either the Patriots lose to the Bills or the Ravens lose to the Jaguars. Neither one of those scenarios is likely.
It wouldn't appear that the Jets beating the Dolphins is likely, either, but the Jets did beat the Titans this year. All things are possible. What's going to make the season finale must-watch TV is the showdown between Dolphins' quarterback Chad Pennington, who had been the Jets quarterback until this year, and Favre, the man who replaced him. Jets fans were ecstatic when Pennington was shipped to the Dolphins. Nothing could be worse for them than for Pennington to come back in a Miami uniform and be the author of the final ignominy of the Jets' season.
Pennington came through in a major way for Miami against a Kansas City team that didn't have the decency to roll over and die. Finishing a terrible season, the Chiefs build a 31-24 third-quarter lead before Pennington led the Dolphins back, capping off a 38-31 win with a clock-consuming fourth-quarter drive that ended with a 14-yard touchdown pass to Anthony Fasano.
Pennington now has 20 touchdown passes on the year - one fewer than Favre - against eight interceptions - 13 fewer than Favre.
The Patriots need the Jets to win to win the division. They could also take the final wild card slot if they beat the Bills and the Ravens lose to the Jaguars. But if the Dolphins and Ravens win, it doesn't matter what the Patriots do, they'll be an 11-win team with no playoff slot.
And in the West, the division champ will have either eight or nine wins. Sometimes, it's not how you play the game, it's which division you're in.
© 2008 NBC Sports.com
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